Tap Dogs

(Lyric Theatre)


Concept by Dein Perry

Professional production

I first saw Tap Dogs at the Tivoli ten years ago, when the show was new and relatively unknown. Sitting at one of the iron tables that ran at right angles from the stage, we were well within sweat range of the six dancers as they stomped along the tables, their grimy Blundstones missing our fingers by centimetres, and treating us to the spectacle of the sparks flying upwards as steel met steel.

This time we were in the more sedate surroundings of the Lyric Theatre where, with no thrusting tables for the likely lads to dance on, we were well away from all danger. No sparks that we could notice, either, but we had to feel sorry for the people in the front three rows, who had only plastic sheets to protect themselves from the gums-boots-in-water stomping that was one of the most popular parts of the production.

Forget the elegance of Fred Astaire, the sheer suavity of Gene Kelly and the antics of Donald O’Connor (who?) Tap Dogs is a different kind of show altogether. It’s raunchy, sweaty, down-to-earth and all-Australian, and for 10 years it’s been wowing audiences all over the world.

Now the lighting is more sophisticated (Gavin Norris transforms steel girders into something out of a Hollywood spectacular), and in the costuming department hoodies have been added to the usual Jackie Howes and flannies, but I was delighted to see that many of the routines remain the same. There was the good old feet-under-the-wall gag, as boots talked to, fought with and pushed each other out of the way, until one pair finally got its revenge when the realisation struck that this was in fact a urinal, and that he who splashes furthest wins. The kids who made up at least a third of the audience were captivated by the lavatory humour as well as the dancing, and the show never looked back.

They may have originally hailed from Newcastle, but these guys’ dancing skills are as good as anyone’s in the world. You can feel the influence of the Jets and the Sharks from West Side Story, and some of the techniques are inspired by traditional Irish dancing, but this far more exciting than either. What we have is Michael Flatley with balls and don’t the dancers know it! They flirt with the audience, send each other up, and generally seem to be having such a good time that you forget that this is hard work, probably even more strenuous than taking on Roger Federer in a three-set match.

Seventy-five minutes of tap may seem a bit long, but Dein Perry’s inspired choreography gives a context to every sequence. He sets the whole show on a building site, where the builders’ labourers perform pretty much as you’d expect, with an added touch of genius. As they construct six levels of scaffolding, they dance along, up and through them, performing on metal ramps already slippery from the wet-gum-boot routine, but they never miss a step. We hear and see shoot-‘em-ups, street fights, wind-up lawnmowers, cowboys and cars driven backwards or so we are mesmerised into believing, just from the sound of their feet.

They’re helped along by two superb drummers playing Andrew Wilkie’s score, so much in rhythm with the dancers that that you can’t tell where the drumming stops and the cleverly-amplified tapping takes over. It’s a flawless team effort that gives a whole new dimension to the term heavy metal.

Not every routine is big and butch, though one slow tap number is as gentle and subtle as a Chopin waltz, and there’s a great deal of fun along with the way, especially when one of the team is hauled up by ropes to dance upside down on a metal ramp. Dancing on the ceiling was never like this.

Like all the best performers, they save the biggest number for the very end. Just when we thought they’d finally completed their curtain calls, they reappeared with welding guns, and played a dangerous game of spray-the-enemy behind metal posts. After such a display of pure genius and high drama, there was nothing to do except walk out of the theatre gob-smacked, making your children (and your husband) swear that they’d never, ever, try any of this at home.

Directed and designed by Nigel Triffitt

Playing until Saturday 9 July at 7.30pm (Saturday matinee 1.30pm)

Running time: 75 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Tue 5th July 2005)